Thursday, July 31, 2008

Egyptian Media Interviews US Baha'i External Affairs

In today's edition, Cairo's Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper published an interview it had recently conducted with representatives of the Office of External Affairs of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States.

The article is titled, "American Baha'i leaders demand that [Egypt's] government enforces the 'dashes' verdict for the identity document, and estimate the number of Baha'is in Egypt to be 2,000." The subtitle reads, "Kit Bigelow: the Egyptian Baha'i cannot obtain the ID card without his declaration of becoming a Muslim or a Christian...enforcemnt of the verdict allows him normal life."

The paper reports that it interviewed Ms. Kit Bigelow and Mr. Aaron Emmel at their offices in Washington, DC. The reporter was quite impressed with the design of their offices, being walled with glass as a symbol and a representation of the transparency of that office's work.

The article is quite extensive, objective and accurate as to the facts presented regarding the history, teachings, laws, principles and the administrative structure of the Baha'i religion. It reports that Kit Bigelow stated that the Baha'is of Egypt request nothing more than being granted identity documents, just like any other Egyptian citizen, that would allow them normal livelihood. It also reports that while there are about 160,000 Baha'is in the United States, there are approximately 2,000 Baha'is in Egypt.

The print version of the newpaper shows a photograph of Mr. Aaron Emmel, who is also quoted in the article and is referred to as the person responsible for human rights in the office of external affairs. The online version shows a picture of Ms. Kit Bigelow seated at the conference table, who is referred to as the director of the office of external affairs.

The comment section in the online version is another story! It contains a flood of comments (54 as of the writing of this post), presumably by extremist elements, attacking the Baha'i religion and the newspaper for its objective reporting. Some of these comments have been responded to by others but, in brief, these ferocious attacks betray how deep rooted is the hatred expressed by these extremists. By carefully analyzing these remarks, one cannot come up with any substantial or relevant arguments presented by them, but rather, as has always been the case in the past, blind antagonism without addressing the facts presented in the article. There is abundance of groundless hate messages...just like blowing words in the intellectual discourse there!

In conducting this interview and publishing this very well-written article, Al-Masry Al-Youm is to be commended on its courageous, objective and intellectually honest show of journalism.

Please see full English translation of the article at Barnabas quotidianus blog and here....

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Irony of Denial

Another comic by Mideast Youth clearly illustrates the unfortunate situation facing the children of Baha'is in Egypt in their desperate attempts to enter school. One clear observation was that the Ministry of Education official denying the admission of a child to school wrote her denial on an apparently disposable piece of paper. The irony is that this poorly presented denial requests a computerized birth certificate from the child.

The comic speaks for itself (click on it to enlarge):

Monday, July 28, 2008

Baha'i Homes & Properties Torched in Iran

According to the Baha'i World News Service (BWNS), Baha'i homes in Iran are now being targeted by arsonists. This story, officially released today, reports on several episodes that clearly illustrate a pattern of selectively aiming these serious attacks at Baha'is and on their properties and homes in several locations around the country. This is yet another proof of the systematic activity undertaken by extremist elements in Iran in their attempts to intimidate, isolate, and eradicate the Baha'i population of Iran. Baha'is, accounting for over 300,000 in Iran, are the largest religious minority in that country.

The seven members of the committee in Tehran that sees to the minimum needs of the Baha’i community of Iran are still in prison – six of them since May and one since March – and are among at least 22 Baha’is being detained in Iran solely for their religious belief.

No formal charges have been filed against the seven, and none of them have been allowed contact with an attorney. Since their initial one telephone call shortly after their detention, they have been held incommunicado. No word on their current condition has been received since the initial contact.

The following incidents were reported today on the BWNS website:
Arsonists in Iran target Baha’i homes, vehicles
28 July 2008

NEW YORK — Acts of arson targeting homes and vehicles are the latest violent tactics directed against the Baha’is of Iran.

“In the early hours of the morning of 18 July, the house of the Shaaker family in Kerman went up in flames, only weeks after their car had been torched and in the wake of a series of threatening phone calls,” said Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations.

“As would be expected in the light of the mistreatment Baha’is in Iran are routinely receiving, the officials who investigated the fire either ignored or dismissed obvious signs of suspicious activity, including a muffled explosion, simply saying that it was the result of an electrical problem,” she said.

At least a dozen cases of arson that target Baha’is have been reported in Iran in the last 15 months, Ms. Dugal said. She gave the following examples:

-- On 15 July at 1:15 a.m., Molotov cocktails were thrown into the front courtyard of the home of Khusraw Dehghani and his wife, Dr. Huma Agahi, in Vilashahr, only months after anonymous threats directly related to her being a Baha’i forced Dr. Agahi to close her clinic in nearby Najafabad where she had practiced medicine for 28 years.

-- On 25 July, the car of a prominent Baha’i in Rafsanjan, in Kerman province, was torched and destroyed by arsonists on motorbikes. Soheil Naeimi, the owner of the car, and 10 other Baha’i families in the town had received threatening letters from a group calling itself the Anti-Baha’ism Movement of the Youth of Rafsanjan that, among other things, threatened jihad (holy war) against the Baha’is.

-- On 10 June, an outbuilding on the property of the Mr. and Mrs. Mousavi, elderly Baha’is living in the village of Tangriz in Fars province, was destroyed by fire when it was doused with gasoline. The Mousavis, along with their two sons who were sleeping close to the building, narrowly escaped injury when the gasoline tank used to start the fire exploded. The Mousavis believe that the perpetrator thought they were all sleeping in the hut when he set the fire. Mr. Mousavi issued a formal complaint against the person they suspected, but the legal office has declined to pursue the case because the suspect swore on the Qur’an that he was not guilty. Out of respect for the Qur’an, the Mousavis have dropped the charges.

-- On 4 April, the home of a Baha’i was set on fire in Babolsar, in the north of Iran.

-- In February in Shiraz, a 53-year-old businessman was attacked on the street, chained to a tree, doused with gasoline, and assaulted by unknown persons who then attempted to throw lighted matches at him.

-- Also in Shiraz in February, several arson attempts were made against vehicles and a home belonging to Baha’is.

-- On 1 May 2007, arson destroyed the home of ‘Abdu’l-Baqi Rouhani in the village of Ivil, in Mazandaran.

-- In Karaj, the burial section of a Baha’i cemetery was set on fire.

“These latest attacks follow the authorities’ attempts to deprive the Iranian Baha’i community of its leadership,” Ms. Dugal said, referring to the arrests in March and May this year of the seven members of Iran’s national Baha’i coordinating group, all of whom are still locked up in Evin Prison in Tehran without any charges and without access to an attorney or to their families.

“As Baha’is worldwide watch with alarm this escalation in violence,” she added, “their fears that a sinister plan of persecution is unfolding become increasingly confirmed. Their only hope is that enough voices of protests are raised around the world to compel the government in Iran to put an end to this violence.”

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Egypt's Ministry of Education is Put to Test

The recent statement of Egypt's Ministry of Education regarding the admission of Baha'i children to schools was put to test. An Arabic language blog named "Egyptian Baha'i" wrote about this recent development and expressed the rising degree of frustration caused by the inability of Baha'i parents to enroll their children in schools in Egypt.

As was posted recently here, the Ministry of Education had clearly expressed its position regarding this matter, that is, admission to schools will be based on citizenship alone, and that there will be no discrimination in the admission process based on religion. The Ministry went further by stating that it will accept children of Baha'is with (--) "dashes" in their documents.

The parents at the center of this controversy were unable to register their daughters to begin their formal education in a private elementary school because of their religious affiliation and the consequent administrative hurdles. They were referred to the Ministry of Education for an appeal. The Ministry, which had just publicized its position against discrimination, responded today with rejection of admission to the child. The reason given is that the child in question does not hold the newly issued computerized birth certificate, but rather presented them with the old "paper" birth certificate. None of the Baha'is were able to obtain the new computerized certificates (or ID cards) as had been mandated in the 29 January 2008 court verdict that allowed them to insert (--) dashes instead of their religious identification.

The handwritten response of the Ministry to the parent (in Arabic) is attached with this post. Its translation reads:
Governorate of Cairo
New Cairo Education Administration

Elementary Education

In response to the request presented by the [student's] guardian, Wassim Kamal El-Deen Nosseir regarding the admission of his daughter, Hana Wassim, using a paper birth certificate. The paper birth certificate cannot be accepted and will not be used for that purpose. A computer birth certificate must be presented instead. The signature of the Director-General is taken [as a confirmation] to reject the student's paper birth certificate.

Mona Abd El-Aziz Abd El-Hafez
Director of Elementary Education
[official stamp]

Based on this new development, the Ministry of Education has already abandoned its declaration of not discriminating based on religion. The Ministry has clearly stated that the only condition is "Egyptian citizenship." It did not make any mention of what kind of proof of identity is required, i.e. paper, computerized or any other form. The parents of this child submitted a proof of citizenship: an Egyptian birth certificate. Now the Ministry returns with rejection of this proof and requires that the certificate must be computerized. The Ministry knows very well that none of the Baha'is were able to obtain any of the newly-issued computerized documents, even though the court had ordered the Ministry of Interior to issue them such documents. The Ministry of Interior did not appeal the court's verdict, but has been slow to implement the ruling. Actually, so far, it did not issue any documents to any of the Baha'is of Egypt (including the individual litigants).

This current crisis requires immediate attention by Egypt's senior leadership. Depriving helpless children of their right to education can be seen as, yet another, serious violation of standard international human rights. This matter is now in the public eye...the facts are clear, and it cannot be ignored. There is no other choice but to issue the Baha'is of Egypt their identity documents. In the interim, the schools and other agencies must accept whatever documents these citizens currently hold.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Egypt's Sheikh Tantawi in a Balancing Act

Many were too quick to be critical of Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, the head of Al-Azhar, Islam's supreme institution in Cairo. The reason for this was his recent warning to university students participating in a leadership preparation institute, and published in Cairo's daily Al-Dostoor newspaper today, in which he declared that the Baha'is of Egypt should never be allowed to state their religion in official documents since that act would automatically imply the recognition of the Baha'i religion in Egypt.

What led this recent declaration of his to trigger so much controversy was the fact that, approximately two years earlier, he had pronounced the exact opposite by stating that there was no harm at all in allowing the Baha'is to have their religion indicated correctly in official documents.

The fact that he changed his mind does not disturb me whatsoever. This act in itself shows that the man can indeed change his mind, which is, in my opinion, a commendable and positive trait rather than a sign of indecision or weakness. The worst scenario is when a person in that important capacity would adhere--tenaciously--to only one stance and remain completely inflexible, a position that has the potential of leading to disastrous consequences as history had repeatedly taught us. In reality, he had also shown that he was able to change his mind about religious minorities in Egypt, a third time, when he promoted "acceptance and dialogue" as was reported in this previous post.

What is revealing, however, in this recent pronouncement of Sheikh Tantawi, was not the fact that he changed his mind, but rather that in this same discourse with the students, he stated that men of religion should never get entangled in politics, and that, just the same, politicians should never get involved in religious decisions.

Considering his thoughtful opinion on religion and politics, and if we go beyond what he just did--that is in changing his mind on Baha'i rights--and try to understand why he did so, doesn't it become very clear that the reason behind changing his mind could have been a political one? This would be indeed something to ponder!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Egypt's Ministry of Education Will Not Refuse Admission of Baha'i Students

According to an article published in Cairo's Rose Al-Youssef newspaper published two weeks ago (4th of July), "Egypt's Ministry of Education affirmed that acceptance of students into Egyptian schools will not be conditioned on their religion, but the only necessary condition that will be adhered to is citizenship." [emphasis added]

The article which was titled, "[Ministry of] Education: Section of Religion [on IDs & birth certificates] is Not a Barrier to Admission of Students to Schools," referred to an announcement that was made by Dr. Redha Abu-Sareyh, first deputy to the Minister of Education. The article states that the Deputy Minister pointed to the fact that "Egyptian schools cannot refuse the admission of any student based on his religion, but the only condition is Egyptian citizenship."

The article continues by stating the following:
He [Dr. Redha Abu-Sareyh] clarified that Egyptian schools during the current year has accepted "Baha'i" students, or those with the symbol (--) instead of the word Christian or Muslim, remarking that this crisis began when the parent of a student requested that the school issues him an official certification that he is a Baha'i, which cannot be issued by the school because it is outside the scope of its responsibility.

He also said that if the students need an official certification confirming that they are Baha'is, it is their responsibility to resort to the Ministry of Interior because it has the specific authority [to do so]....

Based on this announcement, the official position of Egypt's Ministry of Education, concerning the admission of Baha'i students to schools, is very clear. They cannot be denied admission based on their religion.

This development must be seen as a very important step towards the normalization of the status of the Baha'is of Egypt. The Ministry of Education deserves respectful recognition for its firm stance on this critical issue.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

An Egyptian Poem of Praise

Before embarking on a new post that will bring very interesting news about the case of the Baha'is of Egypt, it is probably timely to take a little break and listen to some good authentic Egyptian music.

Those who know Egypt well, must also know its legendary singer who is beloved by millions, not only in Egypt, but throughout the Arabic-speaking world.

The late Umm Kulthum has been keeping the Middle East, for many years, mesmerized by her beautiful and powerful voice, her artistic talent, her majesty and her soul-stirring songs.

The US-based National Public Radio (NPR) has recently produced an extensive report on this once-in-a-lifetime talent, calling her "the Voice of Egypt." To read this report and/or listen to it, you may click here.... It also includes short video and audio clips from some of her concerts as well as from a documentary film, narrated by Omar Sherif, about her life.

In 1996, a Harvard scholar wrote a manuscript titled "Listening to Umm Kulthum" which gives western listeners a glimpse of the life, talent and accomplishments this unique and phenomenal persona.

As an example, the song below is, in my opinion, her best. One can’t forget though that she did have many “bests,” but this one is very special.

This song, Nahj Al-Burda is derived from a poem by AL-BUSIRI (13th century Alexandria). In 1948, Umm Kulthum sang this 20th century version of the poem. The rhythm and style of the song are derived from the Sufi tradition in the manner of “Burda.” The modern poem was introduced by Ahmed Shawqi, the prominent Egyptian poet. The poem is a tribute to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Please click on the player below in order to listen to the whole song.

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Salu Qalbi is another Qasidah (poem) by Ahmed Shawqi and music composition by Riyadh El-Sunbati. It was first released in 1946 along with few other masterpieces of the period. Click on the player below to listen:

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Baha'is of Egypt Submerge into More Confusion

As time passes, the Baha'is of Egypt continue to find that they are in a state utter confusion. The recent (29 January) court decision has clearly supported their rights in becoming recognized for the purpose of obtaining their civil status documents.

According to the court's decision, which was recently supported by the State's Commissioner Council, they were granted the right to obtain identity documents and birth certificates. The ruling fell short of allowing them to enter their true religious identity on these documents, but instead it allowed them to leave it blank or enter [--] dashes. Even with this, not quite favorable compromise, the Baha'is have been content with such middle of the road solution to their dilemma.

To this day, not a single one of them has been able to obtain any documents. Even worse, more recently, their children have been denied admission to elementary schools. Their older children are now being subjected to further obstacles in their attempts to register for the final secondary education examinations required for entry into the university education system.

As recommended in yesterday's accompanying article--written in Al-Ahaly newspaper by Amina Al-Naqash, who explained the struggle of the Baha'is very clearly and objectively--the Baha'is cannot even obtain Egyptian passports (that do not identify the person's religion) because they have no ID cards, a requirement for processing passport applications.

In the meantime--as the status of the Baha'is of Egypt is approaching a crisis level because of their inability to obtain their basic citizenship rights--to make matters worse, the Ministry of Religious Endowment, headed by Mr. Zaqzouq, has just instructed all mosques in Egypt to launch an attack on the Baha'is. The second, attached, Rose Al-Youssef newspaper article, published today, proudly announces this fresh piece of news.

In brief, the article states that the Ministry has distributed to all Mosque leaders (Imams) a book called "Baha'iy'ah and the position of Islam," aimed at telling people to watch-out for those Baha'is who are out to get them and destroy Islam in the process.

The book, and the article, repeat the usual falsehood that has been propagated in Egypt (and Iran) about the Baha'is, that is: the usual unfounded propaganda about connections to Zionism, etc.... It accuses the Baha'is of being apostates, and explains how Sheikh Al-Azhar in 1947 had classified them as such, and had declared their marriages to be null and void. It even incites Egyptians "to warn their youth about the dangers of 'Baha'iy'ah' so that they don't fall for its entrapment."

Fascinating indeed.... One doubts, however, that Egyptians can be that gullible! On the other hand, if the audience at these sermons of Friday mosque gatherings is not well informed to begin with, or if they were easily influenced by this persuasive and superfluous talk because of their lack of education, this can easily lead to a state of public unrest and can disrupt "Public Order."

Why would the Ministry of Religious Endowment begin this hateful campaign at this juncture, exactly to coincide with the Ministry of Interior's--and the court's--attempts to find a just solution to the status of the Baha'is of Egypt? This is indeed very disturbing, and to put it mildly, irresponsible.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Baha'i Children in Egypt & Iran: A Comic That Depicts Their Dilemma

In an attempt to make a point, the Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights has been at it again. This time by producing yet another penetrating and thought provoking comic (click on the comic to enlarge).

In their post, published today, the authors state:
Baha’is in Egypt and Iran are being denied their right to education. Why? Simply because of their faith. On the Muslim Network for Baha’i Rights, we have written about the discrimination that Egyptian Baha’is have been receiving, which right now is comparable to what Iran has been putting its Baha’i students through for decades.

Inspired by these human rights abuses we have created a comic to raise awareness on the absurdity of this crisis. Why do I call it a crisis? Because this is intellectual abuse. Baha’i youth are being victims of intellectual starvation, they are unable to acquire an education which is their given right as citizens. They are being isolated and humiliated on a daily basis. These governments, instead of protecting them, are denying them the chance to learn, which means that they are robbing them of their dreams, of having a career, a future, a life.

Don’t all children deserve an education no matter who they are? The Egyptian and Iranian authorities have no right to treat the Baha’is so differently.

This comic should make you laugh first. And then it should make you think. It’s available in four languages so far: Arabic, Farsi, French, Portuguese and English.

This comic also points to the innocence of children. Recent experience shows that classmates of persecuted children in Iran and Egypt are beginning to take notice and resent the the way their friends are being treated. At times, even siding with their cause. It also shows the obvious: that children look at life through different lenses than adults--their priorities are not always the same!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Egypt: Children of Baha'is Are Denied Admission to Schools

As a follow up to the recent news concerning the Baha'is of Egypt, discussed in the last post on this blog, the Egyptian media is currently engaged in bringing this critical matter to the attention of the public and the Egyptian authorities. International Herald Tribune's Daily News Egypt has published yesterday an article regarding this most recent crisis affecting the Baha'i childern in Egypt. They are being denied admission to schools because of their religious affiliation.

The article, which is quite self explanatory is reprinted below. It is followed, near the end of the post, by a brief commentary:


By Sarah Carr
First Published: July 1, 2008

CAIRO: Local schools are denying Bahais the right to enroll their children, five months after an Egyptian court recognized the right of members of the minority religion to leave the religious affiliation field on birth certificates and ID cards blank.

Adel Ramadan, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) — which brought the case that was ruled on in January — says that schools are refusing to accept personal identity documents printed on paper.

Egypt recently replaced handwritten personal identity documents printed on paper with computerized ones, but the Ministry of Interior has reportedly been stalling on issuing them for Bahais.

While under the system involving paper documents the religious affiliation field on birth certificates and ID cards could be left blank, a 2006 Supreme Administrative Court decision held that Bahais had to either list themselves as Muslim, Christian or Jew (the only religions recognized in Egypt) or be denied the official documents necessary for them to access state services such as education and healthcare.

The effect of the policy was to force Bahais to commit fraud by falsely listing a religious denomination in order to obtain the documents necessary for them to open bank accounts, apply for jobs and enroll in school.

The Administrative Court, which overturned this verdict in January, stated that even though Bahais do not belong to one of the three religions officially recognized by the state, they enjoy the right to refuse to identify themselves as one of these religions. It also said that members of the Bahai faith have the right to access state services.

The Interior Ministry, however, has been slow in implementing the court decision and producing identity cards with a blank religious affiliation field.

EIPR director Hossam Bahgat told Daily News Egypt in April that the Interior Ministry had asked for more time in order to prepare for the implementation of the decision.

According to a report published in Arabic-language daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, school officials claim that they cannot accept identity papers in which the religious affiliation field is left blank.

Ramadan says that the decision was taken in pursuance of the state’s policy of forcing people to issue the new computerized identity papers, but has the effect of discriminating against Bahais who either hold the old paper identity documents or have not been issued new documents following the Interior Ministry’s failure to implement the Administrative Court’s decision.

“In pursuing this policy the Education Ministry is in breach of the constitution,” Ramadan told Daily News Egypt.

“The ministry is obliged to accept what are valid, official documents produced by the Interior Ministry.

“The Interior Ministry itself must implement the Administrative Court ruling and issue identity papers with a blank religious affiliation field,” he continued.

This sad development must be seen by all Egyptians as a disgrace. Identity cards or not, these children belong in the schools, not the streets. How can a civil society tolerate such atrocities directed at innocent children? Unfortunately this is the exact same strategy that has been pursued in Iran against its children. Is this what Egypt--a nation endowed with so much great heritage--wants to be remembered for? One would certainly doubt that!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Baha'is of Egypt Continue Their "Roller Coaster Ride"

The state of uncertainty and confusion continues for the Baha'is of Egypt, just like a "roller coaster ride," when on a given day they might become elated at the news of progress and vindication, and on another they are brought down very rapidly by set-backs and regress.

A case in point is this most recent important piece of news that was announced yesterday in Cairo's Al-Dostoor newspaper (attached), which affirmed that Egypt's Judicial State Council has just upheld the 29 January 2008 court verdict, permitting the Baha'is to obtain identification documents with dashes "--" inserted in the religion section of these documents. The 29 January verdict was previously challenged by an Islamist lawyer who, in an attempt to stall the ruling on procedural excuses, attacked the judge and questioned his competence. This stalling tactic was discussed before in this post.

In addition to that, the 29 January ruling had also faced another legal challenge by another lawyer. This second challenge was indeed an appeal of the ruling itself, intended to penetrate its core and reverse it altogether. This appeal was filed shortly after the 29 January verdict by another Islamist lawyer, named Abd El-Mageed El-Aanany. As a result of that appeal, the case was referred to the judicial State Council, which is a panel of judges at the highest level of the State, charged with acting on such judicial matters and appeals.

This council rejected the appeal by El-Aanany and upheld the administrative court's ruling to allow the Baha'is obtain identification documents. In its decision, the Council affirmed that the only authority that has interest in this case is the Ministry of Interior, not this lawyer or any others for that matter.

Since the defendants in these cases, i.e. the Ministry of Interior, its Minister, General Habib El-Adly, as well as the head of the civil [personal] affairs authority had not appealed the verdict during the alloted time period, that in itself led to the enforcement of the verdict. Thus the independent appeal by this lawyer was rejected by the State Council.

This is a very significant ruling that affirms that the administrative court verdict must stand and cannot be challenged, implying that the Baha'is of Egypt can now obtain ID cards and birth certificates as ruled by the court.

On the other hand, a day after this announcement, another newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm (attached) published an article that reported on cases when Baha'i students were refused admission to schools simply because of their religion.

When the parents of these students went to the schools to enroll their children, they were told by the schools' administrators that they were instructed to accept students only if their religion was stated as "Muslim" or "Christian," and that they will not accept any students with dashes "--" entered in the religion section of their birth certificates.

When the parents went to the Ministry of Education to complain, they were given the usual "run around" by placing the blame on other agencies, such as the Ministry of Interior. Of interest, one of these schools is a French private school and the other is a British private school--both report directly to the Egyptian Ministry of Education.

According to these new developments, it is clear that the "right hand does not know what the left hand is doing." These developments betray a state of chaos, with some individuals, who think that they are in "authority," are making their own arbitrary decisions without evidence of any sort of accountability. Those responsible for the citizens of Egypt must step-up and stop this state of madness and anarchy. They are under the absolute obligation to enforce the laws.